As other Brighton Beach residents strolled past him, many with their children or grandchildren, Yakov Elperin stopped along the area’s boardwalk on a recent Sunday night to discuss how he, as a Russian-speaking Jew, felt about the presidential race.
It took only a few moments to discover that Elperin, a warm, expansive man who hails from Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is typical of others his age in the area’s Russian-Jewish community: The 68-year-old Coney Island resident plans to vote for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, regards Barack Obama as less friendly to Israel than Romney is, and likens some of the president’s slogans to the communist rhetoric he used to hear in the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, the only way in which Elperin differs from his Russian-speaking peers is that he’s been a staunch Republican ever since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which began shortly after he arrived in this country in 1979. Most Russian-speaking Jews cast their ballots for Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, and normally vote Democrat in local elections, says Sam Kliger, a Russian-born sociologist who studies the community. But they’ve been pulled to the right in national elections ever since.
A survey of Russian-speaking Jews conducted by Kliger late in the summer showed that 47 percent of the respondents, all likely voters living in the New York area, planned to vote for Romney, while only 12 percent would vote for Obama. Moreover, Kliger expects that most of the undecided respondents — a whopping 41 percent — would break toward the challenger, as undecided voters usually do, giving as much as 65 percent of the community’s vote to Romney.
But if Elperin’s preference in this year’s race is typical for Russian-speaking Jews, according to Kliger’s latest survey, so, too, is the generation gap in his own family.
Elperin regards Romney as “more sympathetic” than Obama to Jewish concerns, including Israel, he said. And like many in the Russian-Jewish community, even the high percentage of elderly citizens who subsist on government benefits, Elperin believes the president is “more of a socialist than a capitalist.”
But his 36-year-old daughter has leaned both ways in this race — first toward Obama, now toward Romney — and often harbors a more liberal outlook than he does, Elperin said. His favorite network is Fox, he said, referring to the right-of-center news channel, while hers is CNN. And his son, a 41-year-old resident of San Francisco, refuses to tell Elperin how he plans to vote.
Figures from Kliger’s survey show a generational difference that’s even more pronounced, according to the sociologist, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s Research Institute for New Americans, or RINA. While the area’s Russian-speaking Jews, as a whole, seem poised to vote for Romney by a margin of 4-to-1, the youngest respondents in RINA’s poll — those between 18 and 35 — divided right down the middle, giving 30 percent of their vote to each of the two candidates.
Kliger and his colleagues surveyed 306 likely voters in New York City, Long Island, Westchester County and northern and central New Jersey, giving the poll a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percent. The area is home to about 350,000 Russian-speaking Jews, a community that has leaned right in recent national elections. Four years ago, for instance, RINA’s poll showed 63 percent of the respondents preferring Republican John McCain and only 11 percent favoring Obama.
What’s surprising this year is not only the generation gap, Kliger said, but the number of undecided respondents — 41 percent, as compared to 26 percent at the same time four years ago. The figure is stunning in light of the small percentage of undecided voters among Americans in general (7 percent in an Associated Press-GfK poll released Sept. 23) and among American Jews as a whole (10 percent in an AJC poll issued Sept. 27).
Kliger attributed the figure to when the poll was conducted — in July and August, before either party’s national convention and at a time when many Americans may not have been following the race as intensely as they are now — and to more confusion over the candidates among Russian-speaking Jews than among other Americans. Basically, he said, members of the Russian-Jewish community didn’t know what to expect from Romney, but the one thing most were clear about is that they didn’t like Obama, especially because of his perceived attitude about Israel.
Some in the community doubt the accuracy of RINA’s poll, skepticism that Kliger seemed to bolster by saying that precise figures aren’t necessarily the survey’s goal. The goal, instead, is “to gauge trends and compare them to previous years,” giving others a sense of the community’s direction.
Precise or not, much of the poll doesn’t come as any surprise to one community leader, New York Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny (D-Brooklyn). Interviewed by phone, Brook-Krasny said he’s long predicted a 50-50 split among younger Russian-speaking Jews when it comes to presidential elections, followed in the near future by a majority of that population voting Democratic.
“The more educated people [in the community] get, the more liberal they vote,” the lawmaker said.
Neither does the generation gap much surprise State Sen. David Storobin (R-Brooklyn), who told The Jewish Week that “older Russians — the ones who remember Soviet times — tend to be more conservative.” In light of those memories, he added, those elderly Jews view government as inefficient, corrupt and unresponsive.
What concerns or frustrates older Russian Jews, Storobin said, are terms like redistribution — “any slogan that’s the same as one used in the [former] Soviet Union.”
Even more important to the Russian-Jewish community are the issues of Israel and national security, according to Kliger’s data, community leaders and on-the-street interviews in Brighton Beach. Most of the community’s members — both young and old — “perceive Republicans as tougher on terrorism and more supportive of Israel,” said Roman Shmulenson, executive director of the Council of Jewish Émigré Organizations.
Shedding further light on the subject, an anti-poverty worker in the community said many elderly Russians “are either World War II veterans or Holocaust survivors, so Israel is very much a deciding factor for them, and they see Romney as more friendly to Israel.”
But Shmulenson also believes that prejudice plays a role in the thinking of at least some of the community’s elderly members.
Some among the elderly “see Obama as black, and his middle name is Hussein,” he said, adding that spending half their lives in the Soviet Union — “not the most welcoming society” — did nothing to promote tolerant views. “When I came here, I never saw a black person,” added Shmulenson, who arrived here in 1993 at the age of 16.
Those Russian-speaking Jews who came here at a young age, however, “grew up in a more open society and pay more attention to the issue and a candidate’s performance rather than his skin color,” he said.
Another factor in the community’s politics involves the level of education, said the anti-poverty worker, a 34-year-old woman who wished to remain anonymous because she works for a Jewish agency. “Many of these people don’t speak English,” she said, and “they get their news from Russian media,” which gives them the same conservative slant “you’d get from Fox News or ‘The O’Reilly Factor.’ It’s not like they have a chance to get accurate information.”
As a result, she said, even though virtually all elderly members of the community receive some form of government assistance, “a lot of them don’t understand how national politics” — or the stances of particular candidates — “might affect their benefits.”
Moish Soloway, 35, a Midwood resident who supports Obama, also framed the discussion in terms of historical memory, which, he suggested, distorts perceptions of American politics.
Many Russian Jews “take the concept of redistribution seriously,” he said during a phone interview, but “the problem is that there are nuances to that word. It’s one thing to walk into someone’s house, take their land and redistribute it” — the scenario that comes to mind for a good portion of the community — “and it’s another thing to reform the tax code so that everyone pays their fair share.”
Soloway, a former communal professional who now works in advertising, said one reason he supports Obama is because he believes the Democratic platform is more aligned with Jewish values. “There’s no compassion in the Republican Party,” he said. “There’s no soul in the Republican Party.”
But for Aleks Yakubson, 37, a columnist for Russian-Jewish papers and a blogger, what counts the most is foreign policy, an area in which he vehemently disagrees with Obama. He doesn’t think the president is anti-Israel, Yakubson said in a phone interview, but he does believe Obama is over-conciliatory toward Russia, Iran and other regimes. Obama, he added, is letting those regimes “get away with things they shouldn’t be getting away with.”
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